The Tiger and the Cauldron(34)

Chapter 34

QAZVIN

The western walls of Qazvin looked very strong and forbidding, thought Hassan, and the gate, one of seven round the city, very small and narrow.

Doquz, crouching ten paces away, her eyes fixed frowningly on the guards’ positions, seemed to be above fear. It was beyond him to understand what she had endured as a prospective bride, but he understood her hatred because it was one he shared. Yet she seemed able to put it aside to concentrate on the task in hand in a way he could never do.

He wondered how it was all going to end. At Maragha, driven by resentment and anger, he had not dwelt on the possibility of losing his life. In any case, the odds had been reasonable and the risks therefore moderate.

It was different now. He recognised the sheer immensity of the task they were undertaking. Faced with an enemy two or three times as strong, both odds and risks were much greater.

Even if they prevailed their danger was far from over. Baidu’s rearmost regiments, those withdrawn from Qazvin, were encamped less than a day’s ride away and his whole army might engulf them in three. If Mohammed Sabbah’s plan to divide the enemy and thus give Ghazan his opportunity to strike fatally at its heart were to fail, he, Doquz, and her reinforced band of two hundred would be crushed. They might take a city against five hundred but how were they to defend it against thousands?

Such were Hassan’s thoughts as he kept watch on the militia guarding the westernmost gate of the city. A few stunted trees and some boulders on the lip of the depression in which they waited hid them from the casual glance of an enemy. He had counted a hundred men and there were more. Some had ascended the walls, others had set up a small encampment to left and right of the gate. Groups of mounted bowmen patrolled the free ground between the tents and awnings but they were the only signs of activity on the languid summer afternoon. Just within sight were two more small encampments identifying the position of the nearest gates to the north and south.

Keeping his head low, Hassan edged along to the far end of the depression. Though he knew a Mongol camp could be struck with lightning speed, he was confident that this part of Baidu’s army was not expecting an attack. The riders, it seemed, were as much concerned with their comforts as in keeping a lookout for an approaching foe. A buzz of conversation, some shouting and the occasional oath filled the air. A few well-placed arrows would make them sit up and take notice.

Hassan glanced south towards the low, rounded hill with a turret of trees just below its summit where Ahmed Sabbah was in position with his brother’s hundred men. A similar distance to his left were stationed Fakhr ad-Din and his archers, now augmented by twenty-five of Doquz’s newest recruits. Fatima, Talitha and Mariam had been despatched in civilian guise to the east side of the city. With them had gone Mujir, still troubled by the wound he sustained at Maragha, and two other male companions. Their task was to enter Qazvin peacefully if they could and gather intelligence as to the strength of the citadel. If they were hindered by a few sentries guarding the eastern gate, they were to deal silently with them, and with any messenger who attempted to leave.

Hassan made his way back to Doquz and the remainder of her band. They were to be the bait that would tempt the occupying forces out of the gate.

‘I could reach them from over there,’ he whispered. ‘There is no wind to deflect the arrows.’

‘It must be nearly two hundred paces.’

‘My bow is accurate to that distance. And a true Mongol weapon can easily do the same. Ali and I take two each then run!’

‘And when a hundred give chase?’ Doquz challenged. ‘We agreed! You take no needless risks.’

‘A dozen or so will pursue at first,’ said Hassan confidently. ‘We lead them past here and you pepper them with arrows. You see that ridge?’ He pointed to a modest line of hills that ran from just behind their hiding place to the western horizon. ‘We’ll make for there. There’s plenty of cover.’

‘And then what?’ Doquz pouted.

‘A second attack. Strike and run. That way they’ll show their strength. We’ll lead them all the way back to Alamut if we have to!’

 ‘So be it!’ said she. ‘But take Sayyid too. He has a passable aim.’

Hassan scampered back to the ponies, beckoning to Ali and Sayyid to follow. Each took a halter and led his animal as close as they dared to the vantage position. By now, the enemy riders had moved away, so they waited impatiently for them to come again within range of the bows.

‘What are they doing?’ Ali asked.

‘Arguing among themselves,’ Hassan suggested, for indeed there seemed to be some disagreement within the ranks.

‘Then it’s a wonderful opportunity,’ said Ali. ‘Can we get closer?’

‘It’s open ground.’ Hassan measured their distance from the nearest three horsemen with his eye. ‘They would pick us off easily.’

‘Not if they’re dead,’ said Ali. ‘What do you think, Sayyid?’

‘To attack them from an open position would be foolhardy,’ said Sayyid. ‘Still, we cannot wait forever.’

‘No, we cannot,’ Hassan whispered, drawing an arrow from his quiver and motioning to them to do the same. ‘But keep your voices low. I do believe the wait is over.’

Four of the enemy horsemen had wheeled away from the tents and resumed their careless patrol. Three more, squatting beside their animals, passed a liquor flagon between them and voiced loud but good-natured obscenities at their departing comrades. Their black jerkins and shaven heads identified them as Mongols from east of Persia’s borders.

‘Foreign mercenaries,’ Hassan said between clenched teeth. ‘Baidu is indeed desperate.’ He signed to Ali and Sayyid that their targets should be the four riders. He took aim at one of the men on the ground. ‘Now!’ he hissed.

Three arrows flew and then three more. Five of the enemy fell. The surviving horseman, with Sayyid’s second arrow embedded in his saddle and as yet uncertain from where the attack had come, yelled a warning. A score of warriors swarmed from the neighbouring tents and ran to their horses. The men on the walls, alerted, took cover behind their shields.

Hassan stood up, fitted another arrow and discharged it at the sixth man with the shaven head, striking him in mid chest. The guards on the walls had seen him and one barked a command. Another dozen or more Mongols appeared in the open gateway, some on foot, others mounted. Hassan retreated towards his pony. Sayyid and Ali were already in the saddle, kicking their animals into a gallop.

They fled. Hassan did not need to look back to know he had underestimated the enemy reaction. The pounding of hooves on the dry earth and the angry cries of the pursuing men were much too close for his comfort. He bent forward and pressed his face against the pony’s shaggy mane to make a smaller target for the arrows he was sure would come. Two flew narrowly over his back.

But Doquz and her companions were waiting and the Mongols, some thirty or more, were caught in their ambush and fell to their deadly fire. Those that escaped broke off pursuit and veered away out of range of the arrow shower. Hassan turned and saw that the garrison had formed up in three battle lines. The alarm had been given in the city and reinforcements were joining them from the adjacent gates. So far the tactics had succeeded.

Now it was Sabbah’s turn to attack. The Commander with his hundred horsemen wearing the green and gold of Prince Ghazan broke cover on the turreted hill. As they rode they shot a volley at the enemy lines. Many of the arrows fell short, but the Qazvin mercenaries had scarcely a chance to respond before a second hail of missiles descended on them. At this signal, Fakhr and his seventy-five bowmen descended on the city from the northern side and having felled half the defenders with their arrows, struck the remnants of the line with the full force of the charge. Then, before the enemy could recover, they disengaged and withdrew at a gallop.

Hassan, Ali and Sayyid turned their mounts’ heads and returned to the depression where Doquz waited. Three of the band had been killed by enemy lances and two wounded by stray arrows. Sabbah and Fakhr between them had lost twelve but that was the full extent of the casualties. The odds were already better. Yet it was not over. On General Mohammed’s estimate there were five hundred loyal to Baidu in the city and at best half that number had been accounted for.

More enemy bowmen appeared on the city walls. They now had the range of the attackers and more arrows flew narrowly overhead. It seemed to Hassan, too, that another two hundred mercenaries had formed up in front of the gate. But if Mohammed was right this would be the full extent of their resistance. Few could be left to reinforce the citadel or to guard the gates on the east side of the city.

From the battleground of a few moments ago, littered with the bodies of the dead, wounded comrades of the defenders pleaded for assistance but were ignored. Most of the loose enemy horses had scattered, some to freedom, others to be herded by Fakhr and his followers as they sped back to their original hiding place. A few only, hurt in the charge and riderless, with reins hanging free, roamed among the corpses, snorting at the blood-soaked grass. Weapons lay forsaken and harmless beside their former owners.

‘Mount quickly and pull back,’ Doquz ordered. ‘Let them pursue if they dare!’

Crouching low and with her shield raised to protect her in case of pursuit, she headed for the turreted hill.

They were not followed. The defenders kept their lines, battle-ready in front of the gate.

‘They are not fools, Princess,’ said Sabbah when they had joined him, breathless from the ride. ‘They will not risk another, decisive ambush. But equally, unless our whole force acts together we do not have the numbers to break these lines. We have lost the element of surprise.’

‘I’m more interested in the composition of this army,’ said Doquz thoughtfully. ‘At least half are Chagatai.’

‘I wondered at that too, Princess,’ said the Commander. ‘The shaved heads and black corslets are not inconspicuous.’

‘Since when have the Il-khan’s used foreign troops to guard Persian towns, Ahmed?’ asked Doquz. ‘Qazvin has greater importance for Baidu than we were led to believe.’

Sabbah rubbed his beard. ‘This is war, Doquz, and there are food supplies to be guarded. Weapons stores to be secured. And the deserters have to be replaced!’

‘Maybe so, but that was not my meaning, Ahmed,’ said Doquz grimly. ‘Remember his appetites.’

‘Child prisoners!’ Sabbah growled savagely. ‘If there are, we are no further forward. This isn’t Daquqa!’

Hassan had been studying the disposition of their adversaries and the contours of the land around the hill. The answer was so obvious he was surprised the others could not see it.

‘We can afford to wait for the sun,’ he ventured. ‘In an hour or two it will be in their faces and we can attack from the south west. Those furrows will hide us until we are in position.’

‘That is true, Hassan,’ said Sabbah, ‘and nature has often been my aid. But, as I say, these Chagatai are no fools. They will guess our thoughts, our disposition and our numbers. Before the hour is up they’ll take steps to counter our plan: retreat inside the gate; try to despatch an envoy; take hostages if they have not done so already.’ He wrinkled his brow and pointed towards the town. Most of the buildings they could see were low, single-storey housing. Soaring above them were the domes of the mosques, overlooked by their minarets. Dominating even these were the towers of a fortress. ‘We must finish this before they use their full strength to reoccupy that citadel.’

Hassan followed the line of Sabbah’s arm; then he allowed his gaze to stray to the south west where a flock of sheep, pale brown in their summer fleece, was grazing on a grassy knoll not two hundred paces from their hiding place. He was struck by another idea.

‘I wonder if we might use these animals to our advantage,’ he said.

‘Sheep …’ mused Doquz, ‘… peaceful now … noisy when disturbed … But how exactly can we use them, Hassan?’

‘A simple distraction. Let the enemy think we’re attacking from the south west. With Sayyid and Ali, I will drive the sheep towards the gate while the rest of you retreat from this hill, cross those meadows to the north and join Fakhr.’

‘It’s a good plan, Hassan,’ said Sabbah. ‘Well worth a try. Drive the sheep towards the gate if you can, but stay out of sight as long as possible. The Chagatai must not know too soon you are only three.’

The tree cover on the side of the hill was less dense than on the crest but the ground was so deeply folded that by choosing a zigzag path they could reach the flock without alerting the Chagatai to their movement. Hassan patted his pony’s neck and urged it forward with gentle pressure on the ribs. He glanced back briefly to catch Doquz’s eye. Her lips shaped a silent message – be careful.

As they rode down into the furrow, a few of the closest sheep raised their heads, gave plaintive bleats and followed the human and equine intruders with their eyes. Hassan knew it was vital not to frighten the flock, nor to disturb it too soon.

‘Circle them wide and to the right, Ali,’ he whispered, ‘and if you stay on this side, Sayyid, I will take up position mid way between. When we are all ready, we move in and force them to run in the direction of the town.’

They moved ahead at an easy walk. Most of the sheep ignored them and continued munching the grass. Hassan concentrated all his attention on the nucleus of the flock. There were perhaps thirty animals gathered in a close group from which fewer than a dozen had broken away to form a crude star. He waited until Ali had reached its nearest tip before giving his signal.

It was working. The sheep looked up from their grazing and bounded towards the apparent safety of the centre. They were heavy with fleece and ungainly in their movements. Hassan struck his kettle with the hilt of his sword and they crowded forward in the direction of the city. A few turned the opposite way and tried to evade the advancing riders but Ali and Sayyid moved to block their escape. They rattled their kettles and yelled at the beasts at the tops of their voices.

The sheep increased speed. They veered left into a dip in the meadow and out into the open plain before the walls, whipped into a stampede by the continuous shouting and banging of their herdsmen. The defenders saw them and as if by instinct loosed another volley of arrows at this new enemy. Some sheep fell dead but this did not halt their charge.

The three youths dodged out of sight and retreated towards the east. Hassan could hear behind him the excited bleating of the panicked flock and the cries of the Chagatai as they realised their mistake. However, his elation was short-lived. As he looked over his shoulder to enjoy the imagined spectacle he saw ten enemy soldiers riding fast in their wake.

***

Doquz watched until the crown of Hassan’s helmet disappeared from view. For a moment her limbs froze and she was overcome by doubts.

‘Why are we doing this, Ahmed?’ she asked. ‘We are not martyrs to my brother’s cause. I do not want to die – nor to be responsible for the death of my friends. Is there no more to life than war and hatred?’

‘I ask myself the same thing before every battle,’ the Commander replied, ‘but, then, I have rarely known anything else. For you there is hope.’ He leant across and touched her on the arm and she clutched his hand in return. ‘It is not too late to go back.’

‘Look what he has done to me,’ she said, thinking of Hassan and wondering, as she did not speak his name, whether Sabbah would realise to whom she was referring. ‘It is too late, Ahmed! Let us finish together what we began.’

She slapped his pony on the rump and spurred hers down the slope to their rear, calling to the company as she went. Below the next rise she saw Fakhr gathering his horsemen around him ready for another attack.

A clamour of youthful shouts, the rattle of metal on metal and the alarmed bleating of sheep reached her and she saw and heard the shower of arrows as they rose from a point outside her vision and descended again in the south. The sounds intensified then were lost in the pounding of horses’ hooves.

Doquz raced across the meadow, drawing her followers behind her, turning them towards the walls of Qazvin. She gripped her bow tightly and reached for an arrow. Sabbah overtook her on her right flank, Khumar on her left. The Commander carried only his sabre and a heavy shield, Khumar a Chagatai lance.

‘Kolokol!’

‘Allah!’ came the answer from Fakhr’s troops as they heard the shrill battle-cry, saw the charge begin and rode to join it.

The two forces came together. They merged at the gallop, swung into an irregular arc two or three deep, and descended on the defenders at the gate. Doquz lost sight of Sabbah and Khumar. She was carried forward, gasping for breath, enclosed on three sides by men and horses, wishing she could halt the furious pace but powerless to do so. She acted by instinct alone, drew back the bowstring and released her arrow. She felt the dry wind on her cheeks, heard it whistle past the earpieces of her helmet. It had a smell she had not noticed before – the smell of wild grasses and trees, of smoke, corrupted flesh and horse sweat, of blood and death. It was both exhilarating and terrifying, unlike anything she had ever known.

The enemy lines loomed up, the open city gate behind them, and the opposing forces engaged. The sudden slowing of momentum almost threw Doquz from the saddle. She slung the empty bow round her neck and pulled her scimitar from its sheath. A Chagatai with a lance turned to meet her and she cut wildly at him before he could use the weapon. Blood spurted in her face from his open chest. She seized his lance in her left hand and felt the tug of her recent wound as she swung it hard at a second assailant coming at her from behind. The hooked end caught him on the shoulder and he fell under her pony’s hooves.

A third Chagatai moved in. She ducked just in time to avoid his swinging blade and pierced him in the neck with her own. Her hair fell over her eyes and to her dismay she realised she had lost her helmet.

A voice yelled at her above the din of the battle.

‘On your left again, Princess!’ Sabbah was back at her side.

Doquz glanced over her left shoulder and quickly brought the scimitar round to defend herself from yet another lance thrust, this time from an enemy soldier on foot. She parried and threw the captured lance straight into his bowel. As he crumpled she caught the glint of a scimitar on her right. She had no time to react and tensed in expectation of the blow. It did not fall. Sabbah leapt to her defence and caught the descending blade on his shield. It split from the force of the blow but the Commander scarcely flinched. He swung his own sabre and the back of her attacker’s head exploded as the weapon cleft scalp, skull and brain and embedded itself in his upper spine.

Six men were between her and the gate, four Chagatai and two others whom she identified as followers of Fakhr from the coloured plumes in their helmets. They were engaged in a desperate contest to the death.

‘With me, Ahmed,’ she cried and rushed forward to even the odds.

Two of the enemy faced her and launched into the attack. Sabbah, the broken shield still clinging to his arm, killed one with a single sword thrust in the side. Doquz locked swords with the other. For a moment they stared at one another. The Chagatai looked puzzled. He wiped his nose with his left sleeve. His gaze lingered on her face and hair. Doquz gritted her teeth as he increased the pressure on her blade. She resisted. Their eyes met again and she no longer saw hesitation or puzzlement, only lustful determination. He began to force her arm very slowly backwards.

The hot blood coursed through Doquz’s veins. In the face of this one enemy she could discern the features of several others – Melik and Jahan who had molested her, and Baidu himself who had abandoned her to their lechery. In what seemed the longest second of her life, she was just conscious that Sabbah, having despatched a second antagonist and having freed Fakhr’s men to deal with the last, was moving once more to her aid. This time she would not need him.

She relaxed her arm suddenly. The Chagatai, his weight off balance, followed through. The next instant, Doquz swung the scimitar, single-handed and shoulder high, and feeling no pity for the deed separated her opponent’s head from his body. Then, with a casual glance at the carnage behind, she pressed her pony ahead through the gate and into the city of Qazvin.

The victors entered in ones and twos, cautiously on foot for fear that some Chagatai remained, hidden behind doorways and on rooftops. With scimitars bared, they passed a row of badly-maintained town dwellings, then a block of villas with gardens. The windows of all were boarded up. Those of the party that had shields raised them warily. However, no attack came. The streets were deserted except for a few stray domestic animals and flocks of carrion birds.

Hassan’s tactics had succeeded. By turning the enemy’s gaze towards the south east he had enabled them to regain the initiative. The second attack had proved decisive. The volley of arrows had reduced the remaining defenders’ numbers by a quarter and the charge, though costly in men and horses, had broken the resistance entirely.

Doquz looked round at the companions who surrounded her. Sabbah had not left her side and now she saw others she recognised. Most were covered in blood and she could scarcely distinguish between those who were hurt and those who were not. Khumar was there – and Fakhr ad-Din. The Malik was badly wounded in the side and carried himself stiffly with his hand pressed against his rib cage.

‘Zanjani was wrong to doubt you, Princess,’ he said with dignity. ‘I willingly acknowledge you as Captain. Do what needs to be done, and ensure the citadel is secured.’

‘There must be at least one physician in Qazvin,’ said Doquz with a glance at the wound. It was leaking blood through his spread fingers. Fakhr’s face was pained and very pale. ‘We should find you one as soon as possible.’

‘It’s usual for one to be lodged in the citadel,’ said Sabbah. With his helmet pulled down, and his face caked with blood and sweat, he might have been Indian or Chinese, for all the world knew. ‘And the Malik is right. That must be occupied before we can call the victory total.’

Doquz surveyed the bloodstained corslets and the weary faces of those that followed. Of her Tigers who had taken part in the charge she counted sixteen and, at a rough estimate, just above a hundred of their total company had survived. She doubted if more than thirty of the enemy remained standing and most had fled north, away from the battlefront. The General’s arbans would deal with them.

For several minutes, Doquz felt only sadness and despair – sadness for every single life lost, despair on the realisation that, in victory, they did not have the strength to fight another battle. They had triumphed over an occupying force of twice their own numbers, but at what a price. Hassan was missing; there was no news of Fatima and the others. She might have lost her dearest friends, yet the sacrifice had not advanced her own cause a trifle.

She shook off her despondent mood. There was still work to be done. ‘Then let us find the citadel and hope it is not strongly defended,’ she said.

They continued on their cautious way, traversed a few narrow streets and came to a junction from which extended a wide avenue to the north. An unwholesome odour hung in the air, of food badly cooked or worse. There was still no sign of any of the population.

‘I don’t like this,’ said Sabbah. ‘There is more death to be uncovered, I fear, though not of our making.’

‘No more do I,’ replied Doquz, ‘but the people do not know we are friends and are afraid to show themselves. That is all.’ She tried to sound convincing, but failed to quell her anxiety that some new terror awaited them round the next bend of the road.

They turned into the avenue. At the end of it was the tower of a mosque and, to its right, just visible behind some trees and lesser buildings, were the walls of a fortress. They advanced a third of the way and came to a public garden in which several of the trees had been hacked down. From here, they had an uninterrupted view of their objective.

‘I see no sentries,’ said Doquz.

‘The Chagatai may have abandoned it when we attacked,’ ventured Sabbah.

‘We cannot be certain. Let us approach from two directions.’

‘I think that would be wise,’ Sabbah agreed. ‘And leave the horses. We will be less conspicuous if any Chagatai are watching.’

They divided, leaving four of their number with slight wounds to guard the ponies. Khumar and four more were sent among the houses to rouse the inhabitants and flush out any of the enemy who might be hiding there. Sabbah took fifty men by the road. Fakhr went with him.

Doquz led the rest by the shorter and more direct route. The grass and pathways of the garden were strewn with refuse. The only signs of life were some scavenging rats that scattered as they approached. She reached the half way point without encountering an enemy, alive or dead. The unwholesome odour had been growing stronger. Another avenue bisected the garden, leading on her left to a building that resembled a scaled-down version of the fire temple at al-Qisma. To her right and perhaps a hundred paces distant, were the outer walls of a second mosque with its dome rising above them and, in the southern corners, two impressive minarets. She was now within arrow range of the battlements.

She crossed the avenue, calling on the others to follow. Only a band of shrubbery separated them from the fortress walls. The stench in the air was sickening.

Doquz pushed some branches aside and stepped out onto a paved square in front of the citadel. She swallowed to prevent herself from vomiting the meagre contents of her stomach. In front of her were the remains of a dozen fires. Though most were nothing but ash and soot, a few were still smouldering and black pungent smoke arose from the dying embers. Amidst all, arranged with near geometric precision was a ring of human skulls.

Doquz held her breath. Her heart almost stopped beating. Closer to the wall itself three corpses lay face-down in pools of blood. To left and right of the doorway, lying on their backs with short-flight arrows protruding from their chests, were four more.

The door to the citadel lay wide open.

[to be continued shortly]

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